I don’t know much about Len Dawson. I never saw him play football. By the time I started watching the game rather religiously, he was already well into the broadcast booth. Dawson was damn good at his jobs too. He is both a Hall of Fame quarterback and Hall of Fame broadcaster, not a bad career in the business if you can get it.
As a kid who wasn’t raised anywhere near Kansas City, you kinda knew that Dawson was a pretty good player back in his day. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have landed a job analyzing the sport he once played. He became one of the first men to go from the football field to the broadcast booth after retirement.
As a fan, you knew the basics about Dawson, that he led the Chiefs to the very first Super Bowl. His name, however, was largely overshadowed by the Packer greats who won that game, quarterback Bart Starr and head coach Vince Lombardi. History would later celebrate the name of another iconic quarterback, Joe Namath, who confidently predicted a Jets victory in Super Bowl III despite being a two-touchdown underdog. Ultimately, Dawson would not be denied his place in history, leading the Chiefs back to the Bowl in the fourth ever occurrence of the big game.
In Super Bowl IV, Dawson finally won his Super Bowl MVP, bringing Kansas City their first title and forever etching his name into the city’s lore.
With all this talk about Tom Brady playing well into his 40s, Dawson did that before it was fashionable, calling it quits at the age of 40. He’d played 14 years for the Chiefs, including one year with the Dallas Texans who later relocated to Kansas City.
Dawson led the league in touchdown passes five times, quarterback rating five consecutive times, and completion percentage for six straight seasons.
While you rarely hear his name mentioned among the top quarterbacks of all time, he remains one of only 22 men to win Super Bowl MVP playing the quarterback position. If that doesn’t deserve honorable mention, I’m not sure what does.
The game has changed immeasurably since Dawson’s time. Sundays now generate a lot more money and garner a lot more attention. The NFL now generates over $11 billion a year in revenue. While Dawson played at a time when relatively few watched, today’s game is played when many might no longer have access to watch, with the NFL reaching an agreement with streaming networks like Amazon for exclusivity. The quarterback position has changed as well, the modern game significantly more aerial than when Roger Staubach won MVP in Super Bowl V after passing for only two touchdowns and 119 total yards.
But no image might better capture how the game has changed more over time than this one of Len Dawson, in one of the most iconic sports photographs ever.
The late Life Magazine photographer Bill Ray, who also assigned to cover Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, the Beatles, and JFK, might be best remembered for the photo he took of Len Dawson, puffing on a cigarette and sipping a Fresca, during half time of Super Bowl I. For some reason, Ray’s collection of the first Super Bowl was not published until forty years later, which means it took us that long to enjoy this now inconceivable moment.
It’s safe to say you will never see a photograph like this ever again, nor might we see a quarterback as revered by the city in which he played.
Len Dawson passed away this week but not before a providing a lifetime of moments for both Kansas City and NFL fans alike. He was 87 years old.